How to Plant and Grow Basil

Fresh basil is easy to grow and adds tons of flavor to your favorite dishes.

'Napolitano' basil
Photo: Ed Gohlich

A popular and exceptionally easy-to-grow herb, basil produces tasty foliage from early summer through fall. The eye-catching bushy plants grow equally well in garden beds and containers. Plant basil in a sunny spot, and you'll reap rewards of flavorful foliage in shades of green, purple, or bronze for several months. The leaves lend a distinctive taste to salads, pizza, and pasta dishes. Add leaves to dishes just before serving for the best flavor and aroma.

Basil Overview

Description Basil dishes up classic Italian flavor in eye-catching bushy plants suitable for garden beds or containers. Grow this tasty beauty in a sunny spot, and you'll reap rewards of flavorful foliage in shades of green, purple, or bronze. Basil lends a distinctive taste to salads, pizza, and pasta dishes. Use small leaves whole; chop larger leaves. Add leaves to dishes just before serving for the best flavor and aroma. Basil plants are sensitive to cold; start seeds indoors or plant outside after all danger of frost has passed.
Genus Name Ocimum basilicum
Common Name Basil
Plant Type Annual, Herb
Light Part Sun, Sun
Height 1 to 3 feet
Width 1 to 3 feet
Flower Color White
Season Features Fall Bloom, Summer Bloom
Special Features Good for Containers, Low Maintenance
Propagation Seed
Problem Solvers Deer Resistant

Where to Plant Basil

Plant basil alongside other culinary herbs in your garden such as parsley, chives, oregano, thyme, cilantro, and dill for a bountiful collection of fresh fragrant foliage. Seed a row of your favorite basil variety in the garden to ensure plenty of fresh leaves for making pesto or flavoring summer dishes. When planted near tomatoes, basil displays an ability to repel pests such as thrips (tiny winged insects) and tomato hornworms.

Basil also feels right at home in a mixed border. This herb's green or purple foliage complements a host of annuals and perennials. Although basil's summer blooms are not desirable for cooking, they add interest to a landscape planting and attract beneficial insects.

You can also plant basil in containers right outside your back door for garden-fresh flavor within steps of the kitchen. A colorful group of containers stocked with basil and other herbs can turn any full-sun patio or balcony into a smorgasbord of flavor.

How and When to Plant Basil

Basil plants are sensitive to cold; start seeds indoors or plant outside after all danger of frost has passed. Basil is quick to germinate and easy to grow from seed. Start basil seed indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost or direct seed it in the garden after the last spring frost. To grow basil in winter months, keep it in a bright, sunny window and water regularly.

Basil Care Tips

Although basil is usually grown as an annual, it's actually a short-lived perennial in warmer climates. It grows quickly from seed, so you will get a full-size plant in a single growing season. If you want to keep your plant going, move it indoors before temperatures get below 50℉.

Light

Basil grows best in full sun. It can tolerate part shade, but plants will not be as robust or bushy as those grown in full sun. Try to plant basil where it will get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day.

Soil and Water

Plant basil in organically-rich, well-drained soil. Once established, basil will withstand occasionally dry conditions but will do best with consistent watering.

Pruning and Harvesting

In midsummer basil produces flowers that lead to woody stems and leaves with less-desirable flavor. Snip away flowering stems as soon as you spot them to promote new, tasty foliage.

Start harvesting basil as soon as plants unfurl at least four sets of leaves. Pick only as many individual leaves as you'll use. To store fresh basil for up to five days, clip sprigs and treat them like fresh cut flowers: place them in water at room temperature. Basil turns brown if stored in the refrigerator. When frost threatens, cut plants and plunge stems into a few inches of water in a clean bucket to wash them off. Then strip off the leaves, pat dry, and use your favorite method to preserve them.

Pests and Problems

Japanese beetles are basil's primary—and most destructive—pest. Non-chemical methods should be used to control these insects on food crops such as basil. Hand-pick Japanese beetles off basil plants in early evening and toss them into a container of soapy water where they will perish. Protect single or small basil plants by covering them with cheesecloth. The loosely woven fabric will allow light and water to pass through while stopping beetles from reaching the plants.

Types of Basil

You'll find many types of basil in the herb section of garden centers or offered by seed companies. Flavors and types include the classic pesto-favorite Genovese basil, slightly spicy cinnamon basil (also known as Mexican spice basil), and lemon basil with its light lemon fragrance. The size of basil varieties also varies greatly, from less than a foot tall to about 3 feet tall.

'African Blue' basil

'African Blue' basil
Marty Baldwin

'African Blue' is a hybrid variety of basil that can grow up to 4 feet tall and wide. The young leaves have a purplish-blue cast but turn green when mature. Its flowers are pink, making it an attractive ornamental plant. It has a camphor scent and less desirable flavor than most culinary basils, but it can still be used in cooking.

'Aristotle' basil

'Aristotle' basil
Denny Schrock

This variety of basil forms a neat, compact mound of tightly packed leaves that reaches up to a foot tall. Start harvesting the fine leaves when the plant reaches 6 inches in height. It is especially suited to growing in containers.

'Boxwood' basil

'Boxwood' basil
Denny Schrock

'Boxwood' is a hard-working variety that grows only 6 to 12 inches tall, but is big on flavor and makes an excellent edging plant in a bed near your kitchen door. Try growing this type of basil in pots and window boxes.

'Cardinal' basil

'Cardinal' basil
Denny Schrock

'Cardinal' is named for its reddish-purple flower clusters that resemble celosia. This basil also has attractive burgundy stems on plants that reach 24-30 inches tall. Harvest and use the green leaves as you would other culinary basils.

Lemon basil

Lemon basil

Denny Schrock

This type of basil is a summer treat; there's something so refreshing about a sprig of lemon basil in a glass of iced tea. This herb produces leaves with a light lemony fragrance and flavor. It grows 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

'Genovese' basil

'Genovese' basil
Peter Krumhardt

'Genovese' is perfect for fans of fresh pesto. This large-leaf Italian basil yields plentiful foliage packed with aromatic oils, ideal for true Neapolitan-style cooking. 'Genovese' grows 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

'Greek Column' basil

'Greek Column' basil
Dean Schoeppner

This tall, narrow variety of basil bears lemon-scented leaves. It grows 36 inches tall and 10 inches wide.

'Magical Michael' basil

'Magical Michael' basil
Denny Schrock

'Magical Michael' has a compact, well-branched growing habit, making it ideal for growing in containers. An All-America Selections winner, this basil is prized for its bold white and purple flowers. It grows 15 inches tall and 12 inches wide.

'Mrs. Burns' Lemon' basil

'Mrs. Burns' Lemon' basil
Marty Baldwin

A heat-loving heirloom basil variety from New Mexico, 'Mrs. Burns' Lemon' grows 18-24 inches tall and has an intense lemony fragrance and flavor. Grow it in herb gardens, vegetable gardens, or containers.

'Napolitano' basil

'Napolitano' basil
Ed Gohlich

This type of basil is one of the best for pesto. Also called Italian large-leaf basil, its large, fragrant leaves can be harvested all summer long. It's a productive variety that grows 2 feet tall and 18 inches wide.

'Osmin' basil

'Osmin' basil
Peter Krumhardt

'Osmin' offers glossy, deep purple leaves that give off a sweet, fruity aroma that lends pungent color to culinary creations. Tidy plants grow 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide and thrive in pots.

'Red Rubin' basil

'Red Rubin' basil
Peter Krumhardt

This basil variety dresses up garden-fresh dishes with purple-toned leaves. It grows about 2 feet tall and 14 inches wide, making it ideal for containers or garden beds.

'Serrata' basil

'Serrata' basil
Denny Schrock

'Serrata' is quite ornamental with its frilly leaves on compact plants that reach 12-16 inches tall. The foliage of this basil variety makes great filler for flower arrangements. It's a Southeast Asian type with strong basil flavor.

'Pesto Perpetua' basil

'Pesto Perpetua' basil
Dean Schoeppner

'Pesto Perpetua' is a fragrant variety that produces bright green leaves edged in cream. This basil variety grows 36 to 48 inches tall and 12 inches wide.

'Spicy Globe' basil

'Spicy Globe' basil
Dean Schoeppner

As one of the best types of basil for growing in small spaces, this plant reaches only 6-10 inches tall. It has a spicy flavor, tiny leaves, and compact form. It makes a great edging plant for herb gardens or flower borders.

Garden Plans for Basil

Summer Vegetable Garden Plan

summer vegetable garden plan illustration
Illustration by Gary Palmer

Enjoy summer's finest flavors with this fun and easy garden plan. This arrangement offers tons of color and texture as well as variety in flavors. You can also keep the harvest going with spring and fall versions of this plan.

Colorful Herb Garden Plan

Colorful Herb Garden
Gary Palmer

Get an herb garden that dazzles with this colorful plan, where a 3x8-foot border features foliage with purple, green, and golden hues—including variegated leaves.

Classic Herb Garden Plan

Classic Herb Garden
Gary Palmer

Ensure your kitchen is always stocked with fresh herbs with this classic herb garden plan, where ten kinds of herbs surround a decorative sundial in a 6-foot-diameter bed.

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